by Barbara Sherf
“I like this one” my 87-year-old dad says of a photo of himself on Paint right next to Charlie Pfluger, his best friend, on his horse as an 8 or 9-year-old Tommy (my dad) balances himself with one knee on both of their shoulders in a triangle formation; no helmets, no nets.
“You’d never be able to get that shot these days. Look, nobody is wearing helmets. Uncle Tommy could have fallen off and gotten stomped to death by those horses,” I exclaim, realizing that this is no lie and wondering who took the photo.
Craning my neck looking over his shoulder, I ask him to move over, and we continue looking at the pictures. His eyes close as I read more stories. (My dad has dementia and is now living in the Veterans’ Home in Vineland, NJ.) He is back there on the farm, or maybe we are riding in Pennypack Park or Tyler Sate Park or even my beloved Wissahickon Valley section of Fairmount Park.
Gently removing his glasses and putting aside the book, I slide down and cuddle up next to him.
Half asleep, he pulls my hands to his chest and murmurs, “Oh this feels good. So good.”
The tears come rolling down my cheeks, but I do not move and try to muffle the weeping. I hold onto him like he held me as a little girl. Time stands still. Five minutes pass, and then 10. Listening to the cheering and hollering at the annual Army-Navy game for more than a half-hour, I am relieved that we share this special time uninterrupted.
Dad is fully asleep now; twitching and dreaming. I imagine he is back on the farm riding Paint through the fields or picking tomatoes to get more money for a saddle and feed for his treasured pet. He is home with his mother and father and brothers and sisters; Helen and Robert “Buzzy,” now long gone, are there again.
The football game has ended; a light rain is falling, and it is starting to get dark.
A part of me longs to stay there beside him all night and be his little Barbie again. But I am the parent now; he the child. We lost mom in May, so he’s the only parent I have left, and I tighten my grip. He is sleeping.
Slowly, methodically, I untangle my arms and hands without waking him. Smoothing his thinning gray hair, I kiss him gently on the cheek, catching my tears before they roll onto his face and wake him. I look at him and see the mirror of his features in me. Please God, please take me some other way; I beg of you. Do I wake him to say goodbye?
No. He is at peace dreaming with faraway visions, and so I exit out a back door so staff members do not bear witness to the river of tears streaming down my face. With windshield wipers hard at work clearing the rain, my water flows down my cheeks over the next hour or so until I reach home. The realization sets in that I have really lost both parents, and the guilt surfaces that dad didn’t hear me say goodbye. But I knew if I had awakened him, the painful questions would have come again.
“Where am I? Why am I here? When am I leaving? Are you coming back tomorrow? Who is taking care of Paint?”
I could not do any more “love lies” that day. Well, maybe one. Safely home, I speed-dial the nursing station at the Veterans’ Home. Thankfully, an aide who is familiar with my dad’s condition and has been there from the start answers the phone.
“Was my father upset when he woke up?” I ask with hesitation.
“Oh no, he was in a chipper mood, and he just went down to dinner,” the aide shares.
“I’m glad. Please tell him I won’t see him tomorrow because I need to take care of his horse, Paint,” I ask the aide with hesitation.
“I will. No problem,” he responds.
“Please refer to his horse with the name Paint. It will be so much better.”
The aide assures me he will relay the message in those words.
He understands the love; the lies.
Flourtown resident Barbara L. Sherf writes and conducts personal histories. She can be reached at CaptureLifeStories@gmail.com.